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October 25, 2005

John Tierney: And Your Point Is?

  John Tierney today manages to get Dame Edna Everidge in as a reference. Is Barry Humphrey’s creation really that well known in the US? I can’t remember having seen him  on the box when living over there.

Anyway, the basic point is that Fitzmas either will be or should be delayed, for this is just politics as usual:

If you, like me, have been trying to figure out the point of Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation, Howard Dean has a couple of answers.

Neither involves the original reason for the special prosecutor's investigation -- the accusation that White House aides deliberately outed a covert C.I.A. agent. Much of Washington now figures that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby didn't violate that law. But Dean, the Democratic Party's chairman, says we need to look at the larger lessons from this scandal.

''The problem, what got Rove and Libby in trouble was because they were attacking, which the Republicans always do, attacking somebody who criticized them and disagreed with them,'' Dean said on ''This Week'' on ABC. ''A fundamental flaw in the Bush administration is the personal attacks on people for meritorious arguments.''

Personal attacks! Can you imagine President Bush's critics ever sinking to that level? Dean himself may have occasionally faulted Republicans -- using words like ''liar,'' ''brain-dead,'' ''corrupt'' and ''evil'' -- but he must have meant them, like Dame Edna, in a caring and nurturing way.

The other supposed reason to care about the investigation of the C.I.A. leak is that it's really not about the C.I.A. leak, anyway. As Dean explained, ''This is not so much about Scooter Libby and Karl Rove. This is about the fact that the president didn't tell us the truth when we went to Iraq, and all these guys are involved in it.''

I have a hard time with this argument, and not because I'm a fan of the Iraq war. If I'd been in the Senate, I would have voted against it. The Bush administration's plan to quickly transform a Middle Eastern country struck me as terribly naive. When I consulted experts in democratization, they predicted that American troops would be stuck in Iraq for at least five years, if not forever.

But I can't understand Democrats now gleefully suggesting that Libby and Rove are getting their just desserts for the ''crime'' of claiming that there were W.M.D. in Iraq. Yes, they were eager to embrace any bit of evidence for weapons there, but they had plenty of company in their suspicions, including Democrats like Bill and Hillary Clinton.

The problem was that intelligence agencies weren't sure what was going on in Iraq, just as they've rarely known for sure what's going on anywhere. They've often failed to detect new weapons programs, like the Iraq nuclear program that was unexpectedly discovered after the 1991 war. And because they hate to be embarrassed that way, the agencies routinely overcompensate by wildly overestimating an enemy's capabilities, like the Soviet Union's military and economic strength during the cold war.

After the 1991 surprise in Iraq, the C.I.A. had a special incentive to hawkishly point to every warning sign it could find of W.M.D. there. But like any bureaucracy with an instinct for self-preservation, it also hedged its bets by publishing dovish caveats about the uncertainty of the data.

The result, as Stephen Hayes has chronicled in The Weekly Standard, was an array of contradictory assessments by the C.I.A. before the war, and then a number of face-saving leaks after the war to blame the White House for overestimating the threat. One of the leakers was Joseph Wilson, who accused the White House of making claims about Iraq's intentions that he had already disproved.

The White House struck back by leaking its side of the story and disparaging Wilson -- some of whose claims were indeed found to be false by a subsequent Senate investigation. It now looks as if the White House leakers were accurate in their warnings to reporters to be leery of Wilson's story.

You can argue that the leakers should be fired for carelessness in revealing that Wilson's wife worked for the C.I.A., but there's been no evidence yet that they realized it was illegal because of her status as a covert agent. You can argue that Libby should be fired for stupidity because of the letter he wrote to Judith Miller, the Times reporter, that sounded like a vaguely clunky -- and unsuccessful -- attempt to coach her testimony.

But no one deserves to go to jail for leaking information to reporters without criminal intent. The special prosecutor was assigned to look for serious crimes, not to uncover evidence that bureaucrats blame other bureaucrats when things go wrong.

No one deserves to be indicted on conspiracy charges for belonging to a group that believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Foreign policy mistakes are not against the law.

I certainly get the point about intelligence agencies not really knowing what’s going on. I’ve had to try and brief one or two over the years  over an occasional  pint on what’s going on with certain weird and wonderful metals. If they’ve been getting info from me then how good can it be?


October 25, 2005 | Permalink


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Dame Edna appeared in Ali McBeal as a guest star. It seems likely then, that she is well known in the US

tim addss: Ah, you’re right. Thanks for reminding me.

Posted by: james C | Oct 26, 2005 1:00:24 PM

Dame Edna's talk show has been on PBS and BBC America off and on for many years in the US. I don't know if she's (he's) widely known, but she is at least fairly well known. And possibly well known in Tierney's target audience.

Posted by: Veeshir | Oct 26, 2005 1:45:05 PM